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How 17th-century literature invented the term “white people”

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

white people
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the weekly Vox book link roundup, a curated collection of the best writing on the web about books and related subjects. Here’s the best the internet has to offer for the week of September 10, 2017.

With two debut novelists on the short list, the Booker is clinging to its reputation for breaking out authors and for rewarding the not-yet-famous. But only barely. Four years after first announcing the decision to open the prize to Americans, the Booker is virtually indistinguishable from its competitors. It is exactly what many feared it would become: corporate and daft.

  • Have you seen Danielle Steel’s desk? It’s a giant reproduction of some of her own books, stacked on top of one another, which is a major power move. Please note also that she types all of her books on a typewriter, which means it is someone’s job to enter all of her manuscripts into a computer. Imagine making so much money that no one can stop you from embracing the technology of 40 years ago.
  • At Tor, Patrick S. Tomlinson explains how being an author changed after the Affordable Care Act passed:

For the longest time, authors had to make a simple calculus; keep the day job that permitted them access to the healthcare coverage and medications they needed to function and in many cases even survive, or self-insure. Unless you were one of a handful of phenomenally commercially successful authors, self-insuring was simply not on the table.

The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of ‘white people’ on 29 October 1613, the date that his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: ‘I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.’ As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as ‘white people’.

These overwrought fictions were attempts to excise my intellectual anxieties, a glib performance of my vocabulary and theoretical smarts to prove my fitness for authorship. They were also an exercise in fanatic emulation, further evidence for the imagined judge and jury — who probably looked a lot like Wallace, Franzen, and Roth — of how many tiny white people could dance on the head of my pen.

  • This story about Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Dickens always makes me cringe with secondhand embarrassment: Andersen was a fan of Dickens and invited himself over to Dickens’s house, but then he stayed for five weeks, would go out onto the lawn to cry when he received a bad review, and complained that no one in the house would shave him. By the end, Dickens hated him, which honestly is pretty reasonable. Anyway, a letter that Dickens wrote during Andersen’s stay — complaining about Andersen to his buddy the prime minister — just sold for 4,600 pounds at auction.

“He spoke French like Peter the Wild Boy and English like the Deaf and Dumb School,” complained the great author, making a cruel reference to the well-known story of a feral German boy “Peter”, an ungainly court favourite in Georgian England.

And, according to the reluctant host, Andersen was no better in any other language. “He could not pronounce the name of his own book The Improvisatore, in Italian; and his translatress appears to make out that he can’t speak Danish,” Dickens wrote.

Happy reading!